Until recently, playing behind closed doors was an exception for sports teams. On rare occasions, fans have been barred from stadiums to quell potential crowd trouble, punish racist behaviour, or even to defy political authorities, as when Barcelona insisted on playing without spectators in protest against the Spanish government’s treatment of Catalan independence protesters in 2017. But the pandemic has turned the exception into the norm: sports fans across much of the world are now locked out of stadiums or only permitted in very small numbers.
Closing the stadiums was clearly a necessary step in the fight against Covid-19. But given how important the rites and rituals of in-person action are for many fans, playing sports behind closed doors has been a huge loss – even setting aside the massive financial impact – for both fans and teams. Fans invest a huge amount of time and effort into their club, and they are missing out on live entertainment and the collective thrill of witnessing victory (which is a little different when merely relayed on TV).
But entertainment and success aren’t everything – fans of many clubs, like my hometown football club Swindon Town, frequently don’t experience either. Yet fans remain deeply committed to following their team because, for many of them, being a fan runs deeper than being entertained or gratified by victory. As the philosopher Erin Tarver argues in The I in Team (2017), being a fan shapes their personal identity.
To simplify a little, being a fan involves occupying a specific role. If you’re in a certain role, you have to do certain things: if you don’t cut meat, you aren’t a butcher; if you don’t do at least some of the things fans do, you are not a fan. Fans read voraciously about their teams, they learn about the players, they keep track of fixtures, they wear the team’s kit and other apparel – and they attend games. It is by doing such things that someone identifies as a fan, and this shapes how they understand themself and how they present themself to others: as a Spurs fan, or as a Swindon fan.
Of course, there are fan activities apart from attending a game. Plenty of people are Manchester United fans without ever having visited Old Trafford. But, for many, putting on their team’s shirt, walking to the stadium, and having a drink with friends before the game just is what it means to be a fan. It is how these fans shape their identities and it is what connects them to their team.
The fan-club relationship cuts both ways, however – a club derives its identity from its fans, too. They help to instil a club’s ethos and shape its “character” – those elements, embedded in the club’s history, from its playing style to the atmosphere of the home stadium, that make up a club’s identity.
Real Madrid, for example, are suave and sophisticated, but most of all ruthless – they want to win. Barcelona play with a distinctive style, built around passing and pressing, but their ethos goes beyond the pitch: Barca are also politically associated with the movement for Catalonian independence. If Barca started hoofing it up the pitch, or if their players came out strongly against independence, there would still be a club called FC Barcelona, but they would stop being the Barca we all know and that their fans love.
Of course coaches, owners and players all have a role in shaping a club’s character, but players are bought and sold on the transfer market and have relatively short careers, coaches move (or are moved) on with increasing frequency, and owners come and go. The connection of players and coaches to the club for which they work is also, ultimately, professional and to some extent transactional – even if plenty of players, coaches and owners are (or become) fans.
Fans love their club, and their commitment is often life-long – if not longer, given that supporting a team is often passed on through the generations of a family. This means fans are often best-placed to exert a long-term influence over a club’s character. And since they are in it for the long haul, they deserve to have this influence.
But fans are a nebulous bunch brought together by little more than the love of their team. It is as a group, not as individuals, that they shape a club’s character. And they are most coherently brought together as a group – at least in the upper echelons of English football, where fans don’t own the club or vote for the president – when they are in the stadium. Close the stadium doors and that group disperses.
This weakens the power of fans. It makes it harder for supporters to show what matters to them, and to exert pressure on the club’s decision-makers. When they were in the stadiums, they could group together to cheer a valiant loss, support a player or call for the manager to be sacked (or kept on); out of the stadiums, this dissipates into a mass of atomised shouts in different living rooms and angry tweets.
This puts owners in the driving seat. They can do what they want, creating teams that prioritise making a profit over preserving a club’s distinctive playing style, or using the club to “sportswash” their own debased reputations.
Playing sports behind closed doors severs a valuable connection between clubs and their fans. It stops fans who attended every game from engaging in the practices that shaped their own identities, and it hampers fans in their role as shepherds of their club’s character. Like many sports fans, when the pandemic ends, I can’t wait to go to a game.